In new Perdigão Christmas commercial, a mostly black family is “thankful” for receiving a chicken that a mostly white family “donates”
By Marques Travae
One thing I can say, covering issues of race in Brazil, I will NEVER run out of topics to talk about! That thing about a ‘racial democracy’ must have been a terrible joke. I’ve been writing on the blog since November of 2011 and I feel like I need a full-time staff to be able to adequately cover the daily stories dealing with racism, racial inequality, Afro-Brazilians, racial identity and the like. Today, we have another story that confirms this point.
Nowadays, Afro-Brazilians are much more informed about the racist tendencies they see in the mainstream media. And even when others accuse them of making mountains out molehills, I always enjoy a good debate. And this latest one has surely caused one.
Here’s the deal…
It is a Brazilian tradition that families buy what they call a “Chester” as the main dish of their Christmas family meal. I remember the first time I saw one, I thought, “Is this a chicken or turkey?”, because of the size of the thing. It is actually just a large chicken, but there’s a whole story behind the Chester.
Back in the late 1970s, the chicken giant Perdigão wanted a product that could compete with a competitor’s Christmas turkey. By 1982, the Chester appeared on the market, taking its name from the English word chest. In the raising of the chicken, it is fed a base of corn and soy and is selected for being the heaviest while having the least fat.
Recently, in anticipation of the Christmas season, Perdigão released its new holiday commercial. Nothing controversial about that, right? I mean, it’s pretty standard that companies begin their Christmas blitz sometime between mid and late November. But, as we’ve seen in the past, commercials can either stimulate company sales or piss off a parcel of the very consumers that they were trying to entice to buy their products. And Perdigão has successfully centered itself in the middle of a verbal slug fest between those who see racism in their Chester ad and others who see those who see racism in the ad as trippin’.
When I first saw the commercial at the center of the controversy, I thought there was only one. But seeking to find the 30 second commercial, I discovered that there are actually two different commercials featuring the same two families. One commercial is entitled “The Silva family” while the other is entitled “The Oliveira family”. As the commercials have basically the same message, I will analyze one of them.
One of the commercials starts off with one family, the Silvas, at their dinner table. Then the matriarch of the family begins to share her thoughts:
“When our family received a Perdigão Chester, the gift was not only the beautiful supper, it was also the feeling of having a special Christmas, one of those that we only imagined. Now this feeling is real, thanks to you.”
Then the scene switches to the patriarch of another family, the Oliveiras, in which a man is speaking to a little boy, and says that, when he buys a Chester, it will help a family “in need”.
The Perdigão company is running a campaign called “Chester Generoso”, which has a good cause. For every Chester chicken bought, the company will donate a Chester to a family of meager financial resources. So, what’s the problem here, right? Well, the family that is thankful for receiving a chester to complete a meal that they could only have imagined, is formed primarily by black people. The man and the little boy of the other family are white, with there being a mixture of whites and blacks sitting at the table. Analyzing the second clip allowed me to get a more accurate count of the people in both families. For the Oliveira family, there are a possible seven white people and two blacks in the household setting. In the Silva family, there appears to be seven people, with two appearing to be white. (You can see the commercials here and here)
What I have long noticed in Brazil’s advertising industry is that whites are always used to promote products that signal middle class status, the types of products that everyone wants to get their hands on. On the other hand, whenever poverty, illness and need are presented, most of the time, they use black men, women and children. Of course, if you pay attention to these types of things, it may never occur to you, but subconsciously, it consistently creates an association in the mind of the consumer or general population. In other words, the well-to-do people always have white skin, while those always needing help usually have varying shades of brown skin.
After the commercial debuted, hundreds of comments blasting Perdigão started exploding on Twitter. Perdigão’s Christmas campaign is a “poço de racism” (well of racism) read one Tweet. “The representation of the kindly white and blacks happy for the charity,” the Twitter user concluded. “And the white family saves the Christmas of the poor black family that can’t buy a Chester?”, read another. “And don’t come up with that ‘coincidence’ or ‘we don’t see color,’ because if it were like that, we’d have more black families portrayed helping poor white families out there,” the writer continued.
On the other side, you had those who found that interpretation as absurd and were bothered by the fact that some people saw racism where there was no racism.
One Tweet read:
“Hi, I would like to ask …Is it just that I have eyes here or do you see that THE TWO FAMILIES ARE MESTIÇOS (mixed race)? This Perdigão commercial is a beauty in a matter of diversity having women, men, children, seniors, whites, blacks, browns. pic.twitter.com/JkJbBVu73q
Another chimed in like this:
“The family that receives the donation in the Perdigão propaganda is exactly like any other Brazilian family: a mixture of whites, blacks and browns. The bad is the dirty spirit that says there is historical inequality and then scandalized when faced with reality.”
There were literally hundreds of comments of people taking one side or the other on the issue. Perdigão, addressing the controversy, came with the standard response that it regretted having offended its consumers and reiterating that this was not the intention. The company’s response continued:
“To speak of generosity is, for us, a form of unity and thanks to all our consumers, who for three years have collaborated for the Christmas of more than 6 million people, regardless of color, gender, race or religion. This is what we believe in.”
I also saw several possibilities in my interpretation of the commercial, although only a few can be deemed absolutely correct. First of all, I DID see a lot more darker faces in the Silva family and a few of the people that appeared to white, even though one of them I think could be considered white or brown. In the Oliveira family, besides the white man speaking to the little white boy, I saw two more white men as well as two black women in the room. But when we look at the second commercial, that total grows when we see two kids, apparently white, run by at the beginning, another clearly white woman and possible a white woman serving the chester.
But what can we really say about the people in both scenes?
My second point is that we cannot even automatically assume that all of the people in the room were even family. Holidays are often shared among family AND friends, so we don’t have certainty about the relationship between all of the people in the room even though they are listed as “Silva” or “Oliveira”.
But, third, let’s assume all of the people in the two groups are actually family members. How can people interpret the commercial as being racist when there are apparently two families with a mixture of races in both?
In general, when people watch TV shows, films and commercials, it is the speaker that will attain the focus of the viewer. Everyone else is just an extra. As such, when the black woman is interpreted as the head of the household on one side while the older white man is presented as the head in the other family. The black head of the household says her family’s Christmas will now be special, “thanks to you”. The scene then switches to the other family in which the white man says a chicken will be donated to another family that “needs it”. Although it IS actually the Perdigão company that donates the chicken, the man’s words can be interpreted to mean his family is the donor since they bought a chicken and another is being sent to another family. Thus, if we consider only the main people in the commercial, the speakers, it can be interpreted as whites being the providers and blacks being on the receiving end of the generosity.
We cannot simply disregard this interpretation because the makeup of Brazilian society does actually break down in a similar manner in race/class membership as a whole. According to most data, Brazil’s upper middle classes consist mostly of whites with a few blacks mixed in, while the poorer classes are mostly non-white with some whites mixed in. The advertising industry follows this standard, which is most likely the reason initial reactions to a Father’s Day ad featuring an all-black family were so negative. In Brazil’s TV commercials, families that have financial means to buy and represent consumer products are supposed to be white.
My fourth and last point is a topic that I’ve discussed a lot on this blog and that is the belief that the existence of interracial marriage proves Brazil doesn’t have any racial problems. As a number of articles have shown, it is clear that racism can exist in a society even with high percentages of marriages across racial lines. What one must remember is that in Brazil, historically, the ideology was for the blacks to eventually disappear through continuous mixture with whites and not the other way around. The Perdigão commercial re-enforces this.
We don’t know who the two black women were in the Oliveira family. We don’t know if their friends of the family or perhaps married to two men in the family. If we were to interpret their presence as recent additions to the family through marriage, it represents the embranquecimento (whitening) ideology that calls for the slow disappearance of the black race through interracial unions. As I’ve documented on this blog, it is very common for Afro-Brazilians who attain middle class status, whether through education, entertainment, business or sports, to marry whites. It almost seems to be the rule in Brazil rather than the exception. This interpretation of the presence of black women in a predominantly white family simply re-enforces this ideal. Whether people like to admit or not, marrying white in Brazil has ALWAYS meant attaining a certain status for black Brazilians. As such, the new Perdigão commercials simply contribute to long established images, stereotypes and goals of the Brazilian nation.